I was named head coach of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill wrestling team in 2003. I was fired this past June. The athletic director has publicly stated that I was fired for “performance”; specifically, that I had not been successful in the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC).
Anybody who objectively looks at the events leading up to my dismissal would quickly reject his claim. And realize that I was fired for speaking my mind on a controversial issue that involved me on a deeply personal level.
In June of 2014, my son was falsely accused of sexual assault at another college and I started a blog to address what I had learned about a campus rape culture hoax, in defense of my son. He was recently exonerated by a judge who said that his school held him to an unfair standard of proving that his accuser had given him “affirmative consent.” Affirmative consent means an explicit verbal agreement to have sex; traditionally—and legally—it is the burden of the accuser to show that she had rejected the accused’s advances.
It is certainly worth mentioning that the 24-page opinion the judge wrote echoed much of what I said in my blog.
It is no secret that the administration at UNC greatly opposed my position on their sexual assault policies. Chancellor Carol Folt has been a leader in a national campaign to give accusers unfair advantages in campus proceedings dealing with sexual assault—my stance that the increasing reliance on campus committees and administrators applying affirmative consent standards instead of following due legal process must have rankled her and other key UNC people.
The local activist community also pushed to have me removed. Liberal pollster and blogger Tom Jensen, by his own admission, wrote to my administration demanding my firing and led a letter writing campaign to do just that. There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that I was fired because my views differed from those at the leadership of UNC as well as some highly political people who had influence on UNC leaders and had absolutely nothing to do with my performance as wrestling coach.
Certainly, the timing for my dismissal based on my performance is puzzling. My career at UNC has been challenging, with extreme ups and downs. The first year I took over we cleaned house. The next two years we won the ACC but we were not nationally competitive. I was named the ACC Coach of the Year both years.
Four years ago, the wrestling program at UNC was in trouble and I was prepared to step down. In meetings with administrators, I offered to do just that or to remain and fix the problems with a plan I outlined. They asked me to stay and complete that plan.
Last year I met with athletic director Bubba Cunningham for my annual review where I received high marks for the apparent success of my plan and the new direction we appeared to be going in. At that meeting, I made it clear to everyone present that our goals defining success for UNC wrestling needed to change. I stated that, based on the constraints we had to work with, it was much more feasible for us to compete effectively at the NCAA level individually than at the ACC level as a team. It was extremely possible for us to be 4th in the ACC and a top ten NCAA team. With only three or four strong individuals, you can rank very high as a team in the NCAA. Winning an ACC team title requires a stronger overall team. I stressed that unless the wrestling program was going to get significantly more support, this was a better strategy at the moment.
With those goals in mind, UNC wrestling is currently in a pretty good place. Here are the facts:
- In the past three years we have been a top-25 team nationally and had at least one All-America every year. Last year we had a returning All-American sitting out for the year but still placed 22nd at the NCAA tournament with a freshman All-American.
- This year’s upcoming team would have been the best of my career and should be a top-15 team nationally.
- Last semester my team had the highest grade point average in the history of the wrestling program.
- In the past two years we have had no behavioral issues, honor court issues, arrests, etc.
- UNC Wrestling coaches have the lowest salaries in the ACC.
- UNC Wrestling has the lowest operating budget in the ACC.
- UNC Wrestling is the only sport at UNC, as well as in the ACC wrestling family, that was required to raise the money for and pay for it’s own facility—which I did.
In June 2015, I had three meetings with Bubba Cunningham over a period of two weeks in which he tried to get me to step down. At no time did he ever mention “performance” as a problem. In fact, he started the first meeting this way: “You have done everything you said you would do three years ago and we greatly appreciate what you have done.” I asked over and over, why did he want me to step down but I got no answer. When he indicated at the last meeting that if I didn’t step down he would have to fire me, I got no reason why.
Publicly, though, he has successfully spun my firing as a result of our poor ACC performance. Although we have not done well in the ACC, his reason doesn’t fly. We made a fundamental change last year in our goals that all my supervisors agreed with; we would pursue success in the ACC but the real goal of UNC wrestling is to get guys on the podium at the NCAA tournament.
More importantly, at a UNC Head Coaches Meeting in May, Bubba Cunningham told all the coaches that one result of the new NCAA movement to pay players that he planned to pursue was removing individual sports like wrestling, track, and swimming from the Conference entirely. He presented this idea to all coaches as something he felt might help UNC keep all its sports as money became more and more of an issue. But now the conference is important?
The issue isn’t my record or if I was a good or bad coach. The issue is the timing of this. I made it clear to my administration that I planned to retire after next year. So, here is the environment that they decided to fire me in:
- The current coach has been in place for 15 years and has indicated his intent to retire after the upcoming season.
- The program is clearly heading in the right direction both on and off the mat, with the next season highly anticipated to be the best in a long time.
- The assistant coach picked to be his successor is very young and inexperienced, with only one year of full-time coaching experience.
- Other coaches at UNC have not been successful in the conference but are still working.
Finally, it should be noted that once it was clear to me that they wanted to hire my assistant coach to replace me, I offered to stay on as an associate head coach. I did this because I care about the guys on this team and it just didn’t make sense to hand this program over to somebody with such limited experience. When they declined that offer, any doubts I had about this being about anything but wanting me out because of my views disappeared.
I have no legal recourse; I was an “at will” employee and UNC can fire me whenever they want to for whatever reason. That doesn’t make this right. I have no desire to hurt UNC; I love my alma mater. However, the leadership at UNC clearly caved to political and public pressure surrounding a hot button issue right now and threw one of their own under a bus. I said some things that are not politically correct and I made some people uncomfortable. Is this what a great public university wants to stand for: punishing employees who don’t toe the line on political issues?
If they can unceremoniously dump me for speaking out against the injustice done to my son and the lack of due process in campus sexual assault cases, they can and will do it to others who speak out on other issues. This is bigger than my job or myself; it is about the right to raise your voice on the UNC campus—a school that prides itself on a tradition of free speech—in protest of all and any injustice.